Postmodernism in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

By Derek D. Miller
2011, Vol. 3 No. 04 | pg. 1/1

“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.” (Vonnegut 66). This quote encompasses the satiric postmodern themes of absolute truth in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. There are several significantly strong postmodern concepts Vonnegut brings into view in this novel. First is the idea of truth, which he satirizes though the Bokononism. Second, is the idea of progress and how society views that progress only betters mankind, and brings it good fortune. The third concept is the concept of absolute knowledge and the idea of attaining it through science and experimentation, which relates to the themes of progress through his use parody. The postmodern influence of Vonnegut’s black humor and his satire can be seen when analyzed through the discussions in Jim Powell’s Postmodernism for Beginners.

First off, what is postmodernism? Well “it has something to do with skepticism about Grand Narratives” (Powell). Cat's Cradle is a highly postmodern text because it parodies the Grand Narrative of absolute truth and the modern ideas of progress. Vonnegut uses Cat's Cradle to satire the ideas society holds about progress and how it is achieved through the pursuit of truth; the pursuit of knowledge gained through science and experimentation. Society seems to believe that it can better itself through obtaining empirical, scientific data about the world around us. This is a belief of Modernism. This belief is that the more man knows about the nature of how things work or the more knowledge society obtains, the better off it is. This is a modern idea which comes from the Enlightenment Era also known as the Age of Reason. “Probably the main value of the age, besides reason, was the idea of progress.” (Powell). But this is a belief highly criticized by the principles of Postmodernism as well as by Vonnegut. A renowned example of postmodernism's questioning of this modern forgery is the creation of the atom bomb (which appears in the novel). Supposedly the progression of society into the realms of science, discovery, and knowledge, leads the world to the ever-nearing goal of a utopia. However the only benefit one of society’s greatest scientific discoveries, in this case the atomic bomb, was the capacity and ramifications of endings hundreds of thousands of lives. So does this pursuit of science, of knowledge, of truth, really lead society to the bettering of mankind? Vonnegut uses this example in Cat’s Cradle. This is one of the characteristics of the novel which makes it a postmodern work of art.

Vonnegut uses the plot of Cat's Cradle to make a postmodern parody of how science really does not lead to a utopia. In chapter 66 of the novel, Papa (the leader in San Lorenzo) suffers from a mysterious ailment and right before passing out he says "'You,' he said to Frank hoarsely, 'you - Franklin Hoenikker - you will be the next President of San Lorenzo. Science - you have science. Science is the strongest thing there is.' 'Science' said 'Papa' 'Ice'" (Vonnegut 146). He elects to make Frank Hoenikker the new president of San Lorenzo because he thinks he is about to die. He chooses Frank because he knows of his possession of Ice-Nine (which happens to be the greatest and newest scientific discovery of mankind in the novel). The satire is this: Papa assumes Frank would be the best option for President because he has science; Ice-Nine. Papa’s ideas about how science betters society reflect the Modern idea of the concept. However, later in the novel, the reader discovers that Ice-Nine brings about the end of the world. Vonnegut's satire reflects the postmodern concept that pursuing a utopia through science is a facetious pursuit because the further mankind dives into scientific discovery, the more destructive society becomes.

Vonnegut uses a religion he created for the novel called Bokononism to convey society’s misconceptions about the usefulness of truth. Bokononism is a religion that identifies with its own falseness. It rejoices in accepting that its ideals are not true. In The Books of Bokonon (the bokononist equivalent of the Christian bible) it states to “Live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and happy and healthy.” Bokononists see that a religion does not have to be true to be useful. The religion shows its followers that the ideals of a religion can be beneficial to oneself without them being based on ultimate truth. In the novel Vonnegut uses the island of San Lorenzo to portray how lies can help mankind more than truth. The island is extremely stricken and they have no means of building the island’s economy or to make it an island worth living on. So instead of attempting to do so, the citizens confide in the hope which their religion can bring them, regardless of whether it’s true or not. It can bring them hope and happiness nonetheless. “’Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible’” (Vonnegut 172). This is a postmodern theme because it shows how gaining all truth, does not really better society in all cases, in fact in this case truth becomes the very antithesis of benefit. From a modern perspective it is assumed that gaining knowledge leads to good things, and that seeing beyond falseness brings mankind one step closer to a utopia. However from a postmodern outlook, in example the outlook of Vonnegut’s Bokonism, this truth really leads society no closer to a perfect society, it actually causes deviation from it. Vonnegut uses Bokononism to parallel with the postmodern idea of there not being a single all-knowing religious being. Bokononism is used to parody the concept of a Grand Narrative. This is a postmodern idea, “We are beginning to realize that we live in a world of man-made signs and symbols, and have begun to play around with those signs and symbols humorously and ironically so that we are not enslaved to them. This often means accepting a Grand Narrative but having an ironic attitude toward it” (Powell). Bokononism is a perfect example of this kind of irony, in fact the entire novel is, “The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: ‘All of the things I am about to tell you are shameless lies’” (Vonnegut 5).

Vonnegut goes on to satire these principles further, mainly the idea of progress through knowledge. Early in the novel, the main character has a conversation with two other characters and they land on the subject of the secret of life:

“’What is the secret of life?’ I asked.
‘I forget,’ said Sandra.
‘Protein,’ the bartender declared. ‘They found something out about protein.”
‘Yeah,’ said Sandra, “that’s it.”

Vonnegut’s sense of humor is directly in play here, he toys with the idea that discovering the secret of life would lead society to a catalyst of transcendence into depths of progression never seen before. However, the discovery of “the secret of life” in Cat's Cradle, leads to nothing. The fact about the importance and beneficial uses of protein to the human diet does nothing for society. It is merely a nifty fact and it does not lead mankind into new fields of undiscovered enlightenment or progress. Vonnegut uses postmodern irony to show that knowledge does not always mean progress, and that progress is not always beneficial. The author uses this comedic sense of irony throughout the entire novel, and he never does it without it having a postmodern twist. Later in the novel, several characters are talking about science and how wonderful it is. Yet Vonnegut makes sure to use the word “wonderful” very satirically.

“’How can anybody in his right mind be against science?’ asked Crosby.’
I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for Penicillin,’ said Hazel. ‘And so would my mother.’
‘How old is your mother?’ I inquired.
‘A hundred and six. Isn’t that wonderful?’ (Vonnegut 231).

As you can see, Vonnegut’s “jokes” are always flavored with a postmodern punch-line. This is ironic because it displays how science is not always a benefactor to an individual. In a modern perspective, it would be assumed that science –the pursuit of knowledge through collection of observation and empirical data- benefits people. However Vonnegut uses his postmodern irony to show that this is not always true. Clearly, just because a person’s life is prolonged that does not mean they are in better shape. The author uses this satiric sense of how “wonderful” science is to convey these postmodern ideas.

One of the most significant examples of Vonnegut’s postmodern attitude in Cat’s Cradle is the entire symbol his novel is based on and titled after. The symbol of a “Cat’s Cradle” (which is a design that can be made by threading string between one’s hands) plays an extremely important role in the novel. Vonnegut uses this to symbolize how all of mankind’s ideas and “truths” are really based upon lies, or narratives. Everything we accept as truth is either a myth legitimized by the necessity for its own creation, or science, which is a narrative that cannot even legitimize itself. In the novel the main character is talking with another character named Newt, and Newt says,

“’No wonder kids grow up so crazy. A Cat’s Cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look at all those X’s…’
‘And?’
‘No damn cat, and no damn cradle’” (Vonnegut 166).

This dialogue expresses everything the symbol represents, which is all of the lies mankind accepts as truth. What Vonnegut is really pulling into view here is that no one has the authority to say what is true, or really even define what truth means. In addition, that no one can define how much more useful one “truth” is than others, because it all depends on the individual. And moreover, that in reality, these truths are all ultimately untruths, because they are based on narratives- myths. This is an exceptional example of Vonnegut’s understanding of postmodernism, and his use of its concepts in Cat’s Cradle.

Vonnegut can certainly be considered a postmodern author. His satiric voice makes use of postmodernism and the irony of it holds for Grand Narratives. He eloquently constructs a tale filled with parodies of absolute truth and modern concepts. These parodies express postmodernisms key principles and show the flaws in modern ethic. Vonnegut’s glorifications of untruths and his convey of modern shortcomings paired with his satire of Grand Narratives makes Cat’s Cradle a literary piece of postmodern art.


References

Powell, Jim. Postmodernism for Beginners. Danbury: For Beginners LLC, 1998. Print.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat's Cradle. New York, NY: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1998. Print.

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